Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Great Kids!

As the year draws to a close I want to write a little about my children. I was talking to a friend recently and out popped this thought: My kids are my favorite people to hang out with. Its true! The older they get the more fun they are. Of course there's the old family jokes and the shtick that we do with each other; that's a given. But then there's the stuff that is just purely each one of them as individuals - that is the best! So here's a little public kvelling about each of them, NOT in birth order (because I know that would bug Hannah).

I know I'll be in trouble no matter what order I choose so I'll randomly pick.... Hannah! She's the one on the far right in the picture.

Hannah is like one of those fantastic pretzels you can buy on the streets of Manhattan: crusty and salty on the outside but soft and sweet in the middle. She has the most deliciously wicked sense of humor and can cut to the heart of an argument like a hot knife through buttah. Everyone says this about their kids (and I'll probably write it about all three...) but Hannah is SO smart. She is school smart and street smart. I know she does not get her meticulous attention to detail from my side of the family.

One of my favorite stories about her comes from several years ago when they were all still in grade school. I was wondering out loud whether or not we should watch a certain R-rated movie that warned of "adult language." Hannah quipped something along the lines of: "Uh, dad, we DO go to public school."

Next I will give you some idea of my son Sam, as I'm confident that Addie won't mind going last. Sam is in his first year of independence at Knox College. I could not be prouder of the kind of young man he is turning out to be. He has always been a keen observer, he has a surprising soft spot for babies, and is a study in contradictions. For example, I believe him to be anti-war and pretty much a pacifist, but he loves shoot-em-up video games, is a big Civil War buff and was hoping to land a part time job as a security guard (and was disappointed to learn that it would have been an unarmed position). Sam loves to debate and is quite good at staking out a position and hanging onto it tenaciously.

Sam is very selective with friends and has a few long-standing good pals. I think this is a positive characteristic: choosing quality over quantity. Memorable Sam story from his grade school graduation: A good friend of his was the class valedictorian (no surprise there). When she gave her speech she thanked a number of her friends, including Sam, adding that he proved to her that "not all men are jerks."

Last but certainly not least is my wonderful youngest daughter Adeline. Adzie constantly surprises me, even more than the other two maniacs. Just when I think I've got her pegged, she comes up with a line or an opinion out of the blue that just floors me. Addie is a gifted visual artist and has a great memory for things seen. She is a most salubrious combination of sweetness and strength. She's the first to volunteer to do something out of kindness (dishes, cleaning up her room) and social responsibility (many hours spent at the Night Ministry, an agency that provides food for the homeless). You don't want to cross Addie, however, because she WILL get even (just kidding, sweetie!).

I have two favorite bits that well describe this girl: The first is an observation by one of the next door neighbor boys, who, imitating Addie, went on a jag about how she "likes puppies and ponies and flowers...and zombies and monsters..." Then there was the famous line, the surrounding story of which escapes me. Addie was talking about someone who the whole gang was not too fond of. Her take was "Let's go hug them....with KNIVES."

My life is made infinitely richer by having these three characters in it. Thanks, kids!

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Good News from PNHP

From a Physicians for a National Health Program press release:

Yesterday the prestigious American College of Physicians (ACP), the nation's second largest medical association (124,000 members), endorsed single payer national health insurance as "one pathway" to universal coverage. This is the first time the group has endorsed single payer and represents a huge step forward in the movement for fundamental health care reform.

The ACP's decision followed a careful evaluation of lessons from other nations' health systems. The central lesson, they said in an article in the Annals of Internal Medicine, is the need for the United States to provide universal health insurance coverage. While the ACP's own proposal is based on a "pluralistic" model, they urged lawmakers to seriously consider a single payer system as one way to provide universal access to health care. They noted that single payer systems have the advantage of being "more equitable, have lower administrative costs, have lower per capita health care expenditures, have higher levels of patient satisfaction, and have higher performance on measures of quality and access than systems using private health insurance."

This is me writing now:

This is a national emergency which none of the presidential candidates are addressing in any kind of meaningful way. The sole exception is Dennis Kucinich, co-author of H.R. 676, a bill that would create a UK/Canadian style single payer system for the U.S. Obama, Clinton and Edwards are squabbling over details regarding some type of insurance-based band aid approach to the wretched state of our health care system. It is all so much hot air, IMHO. It is getting increasingly difficult for me to support any of these front runner candidates; I just wish Kucinich was a more visible, viable candidate.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007


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The grass is half covered with snow.
It was the sort of snowfall that starts late in the afternoon,
And now the little houses of the grass are growing dark.


If I reached my hands down, near the earth,
I could take handfuls of darkness!
A darkness was always there, which we never noticed.


As the snow grows heavier, the cornstalks fade farther away,
And the barn moves nearer to the house.
The barn moves all alone in the growing storm.


The barn full of corn, and moving towards us now,
Like a hulk blown toward us in a storm at sea;
All the sailors on deck have been blind for many years.

-Robert Bly (from Silence in the Snowy Fields, 1962)

Kucinich on Health Care

Dennis Kucinich tore it up at a debate by asking himself a question (and answering it, of course!)

Monday, December 3, 2007

Quote du Jour

Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinion of others, for those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth.

-Katherine Mansfield

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Life Without Television

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While updating my silly Facebook profile I wrote "never turn the blasted thing on" when confronted with the "favorite TV shows" question. It just doesn't occur to me to watch television, which is an odd thing to be noticing since it has been this way for many years. I figure I watched enough hours of Bonanza, I Love Lucy, The Flintstones, Batman, Captain Kangaroo, My Three Sons, Bewitched, The Addams Family, Star Trek, Mission:Impossible, etc to last a lifetime before I turned 18.

In my 20's I didn't even own a TV. I once non-plussed a salesman who knocked on my door trying to sell me a cable subscription, circa 1981. He looked dubious when I told him I didn't have a TV so I invited him in to inspect my apartment. He left muttering " TV." It is a matter of some pride that I have never paid a dime to any cable service for the "privilege" of watching television. That's almost as onerous to me as paying for parking, which is an unfortunate hazard of my profession (at least some of the time).

I suppose I'm no busier than the average American, but I just don't know when I'd find time to plop myself down in front of the tube and actually watch something. I listen to the radio quite a bit, an activity I can combine with other activities such as music copying or household chores. I prefer to get my news from NPR and a few websites and have never been a fan of the network nightly news broadcasts. The only time I use the TV is for DVDs; I do love films and Netflix supplies me with a steady dose of great stuff. But I seldom see more than one or two movies per week.

What's the downside of not being a typical TV viewer? When I was going to commercial acting auditions a few years ago the scripts would sometimes call for an impersonation of a TV character or type. Once I was asked to do a scene in the style of Tim Allen of "Home Improvement". I didn't have a clue what they wanted since I never saw the show. (I didn't get the gig, obviously).

Many years ago I went to a therapist who advised me to watch more television. She felt that I was isolating myself from "the culture" by avoiding television. She thought I'd be happier if I was more, as she put it, "mainstream". In retrospect, this was more a kind of political stance, and one that I strongly oppose. She was by far the least helpful counselor I've ever encountered.

Since I don't work in an office I don't feel a need to keep up with whatever shows people are watching so I can have something to say around the water cooler. My ignorance of reality TV, Dancing with the Stars, 24, The Office, and whatever else is on doesn't hurt me on iota, as far as I can tell. My cultural life is quite full: I'm an avid "consumer" of books, movies, music, visual art, blogs and so on. I don't feel the least bit isolated or alienated from American culture.

A big positive for me is that, for the most part, I don't get assaulted by TV advertising. On the rare occasions when I happen to be in front of a TV somewhere, there's invariably some inane, insulting commercial on that helps me to remember why I got out of the TV habit. Television advertising is horrifying. I can't stand ads on the radio either, which is one reason I listen almost exclusively to public radio.

I know I risk sounding like some weirdo intellectual egghead with my nose stuck up in the air. But I truly don't know what I would eliminate from my present life to make room for watching television. The fact that I don't enjoy TV makes it that much easier not to fret about feeling "left out". I know from experience that I'm not missing much, and even the best shows are no competition for a good book or film. I've seen the stuff that people have raved about in the past 5 years or so (Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, Sex and the City, even Queer Eye for the Straight Guy). They were fun to watch once in awhile but I certainly wouldn't plan my week around any of them. Give me a good novel or CD and I'm a happy guy.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Giving Thanks Where Thanks Is Due

I've just been reading up on the somewhat thorny history of Thanksgiving Day. Despite what our kindergarten teachers led us to believe, the holiday we celebrate here in North America (yes, the Canadians celebrate their version of TD as well) has very little to do with pilgrims and native Americans. Or turkey, for that matter.

It turns out that there is, unfortunately, a strong religious odor attached to the 18th C. version of TD. It wasn't until Lincoln's time that there was national recognition of a "thanksgiving day" and it wasn't until 1941 that the day became a national holiday by law.

Rather than review the data here, I'll leave it to you to do a little research if you're at all interested. Wikipedia's entry is a pretty good starting point.

So, as in years past, I want to give thanks to the people and circumstances that have given me joy, inspiration and a better understanding of the world this past year. I will spare you the personal litany of friends and family members, all of whom make my small life worth living.

Thank you to:

Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christoper Hitchens and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I became aware of their work this year (in the order listed, if you're keeping score) and they have helped me to become articulate about the non-theistic point of view I have had for many years. They've made it clear that I am not alone in finding the concepts of god and religion to be utterly without redeeming value.

Michael Moore, creator of the film SICKO, who has raised the awareness of millions of Americans (including me) about the true nature of our national health care disaster. Again, Moore has helped me articulate what I've felt for a long time (esp as a self-employed person) and has focussed my attention on very specific ways to get involved (such as supporting H.R. 676 and candidates who openly favor a national single payer system).

Al Gore, goofy and pedantic as he can be, for his work on global warming and, in particular, the film An Inconvenient Truth. This has been a good year for raising consciousness (I use the phrase in its most secular meaning). Gore's work is another example of how someone deeply involved in an issue can galvanize millions of others to take an issue seriously. Its about time.

Modern medical technology and the thoughtful, knowledgeable and caring health care workers who have made it possible for those I love to lead longer, healthier lives. But for the grace of modern medical care go I. A special tip of the hat to the makers of buproprion.

The authors Michael Chabon, Philip Roth, Daniel Levitan, Frank McCourt, Nina Shengold, Mary Oliver, Orhan Pamuk, Annie Proulx, James Hollis and Cormac McCarthy (plus others too numerous to mention). Their work has given me many hours of reading and contemplating pleasure.

The music of Dave Holland, Kenny Werner, Charles Mingus, Bill Evans, Michael Brecker, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Victor Wooten, Edgar Meyer, Miles Davis, Ben Allison, Radiohead, Steely Dan, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Stravinsky, J.S. Bach, Yo Yo Ma, The Beatles, Megon McDonough, Peter Polzak and, again, other composers and performers too numerous to note. Their art has inspired me to feel, play and, on occasion, compose.

All of the folks who have helped and supported my PlayJazzNow business in its first full year of operation. Jeff Lane, Jim Massoth and Helena Bouchez are the most likely candidates for the business purple heart, if there was such a thing.

Best wishes to all who are reading this for a happy and safe holiday season, however you celebrate it.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Good Quotes for An Atheist

All the articles of our Christian belief are, when considered rationally, just as impossible, and mendacious and preposterous. Faith however, is completely abreast of the situation. It grips reason by the throat and strangles the beast.

- Martin Luther

What a refreshing moment of clarity! So one does have to kill rationality in oneself to be a christian! Its right there in black and white; straight from the horse's mouth, as it were.

The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus by the Supreme Being in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.

-Thomas Jefferson

Yup, those Founding Fathers were SO fundamentalist. No wonder we live in a "christian nation". Actually, I'm surprised Jefferson's name hasn't been suppressed by the Current Occupant and those of his unholy ilk.

I don't think there's anything quite as pithy as either of these quotations in Dawkins, Harris or Hitchens, delightful as they all are. I'm glad I stumbled upon these in my quest for truth today. (I mean that quite literally, as you will see in a soon to be written post)

Monday, November 12, 2007

Christopher Hitchens in Chicago

Tonight I attended an enlightening event at the Spertus Museum of Judaica in downtown Chicago. Brilliant author, scholar and provocateur Christopher Hitchens presented a brief lecture entitled Do Jews Have an Atheist Gene?

First, I must say that Mr. Hitchens is another one of those people who makes me proud to be of Jewish heritage. The man has an amazingly agile intellect; he is intimidatingly well-read and articulate. One must pay attention in his presence and one is well rewarded for doing so. The penalty for not hanging on to every word is being left behind in the dust, wondering what just happened.

I have been reading some of Hitchens' articles from Vanity Fair and Slate online lately, having been something of a fan of his when I had a subscription to The Nation in the 1980's. He famously broke with the Left a few years ago because of his support for the war in Iraq and has publicly sparred with several former comrades, most notably Noam Chomsky and Alexander Cockburn. I've also been watching Hitch on video either giving talks, debating or being interviewed. There's a bunch of good stuff at his website as well as some excellent clips on YouTube.

So it was exciting to be in the same room with this man. I'm not given to the cult of personality, but Hitchens cuts a powerful figure in person. He is witty, charming and very funny. I'll have to break down and buy a copy of his God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. He's the only member of the so-called Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett being the other three) whose book on atheism I have not read.

Hitchens began by making the point that many Jews have not so much repudiated their faith but outgrown it. This resonates with me quite well; I have often thought that one of the problems with Judaism is that it seems so archaic. There's no room in the contemporary world for so many of the quaint yet exacting strictures demanded of practicing Jews. Keeping the Sabbath and the kosher laws spring immediately to mind here. Even before I identified myself among the non-believers I couldn't fathom most of the mumbo-jumbo that passes for devotion in Judaism. Needless to say, we certainly don't have the market cornered on absurd practices and nonsensical rituals.

So just what is it that makes Jews so prevalent among atheists? There is a tradition of skepticism that runs through Judaism; it is the only one of the major world religions that truly encourages intellectual curiosity and revels in dialog and debate. The fact that Spinoza, Freud and Einstein were all Jewish is no accident, according to Hitchens. The Diaspora encouraged Jews to become cosmopolitan, to value education, to become enlightened citizens wherever they landed. It seems that secularism might also be the result of contact with other cultures, languages, races and religions.

It is not surprising, for example, that the majority of well-known American Buddhist and Eastern philosophy teachers began their lives as Jews. I'm thinking here of Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfeld, Steven Levine, Pema Chodron and, of course, Richard Alpert (aka Ram Dass).

Now I wish that I had taken notes during Hitchens' talk and the subsequent Q&A session. I can't recall the other specific points he made on this particular subject. What sticks with me, above all, is Hitchens' fearless intellectual honesty. He is not afraid to commit to an unpopular opinion and he is able to back up his views with solid facts and convincing arguments. While I don't always agree with his conclusions I have tremendous respect for this courageous forthrightness. I aspire to that level of fierce independence and integrity.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

REALLY Scary Things

This Halloween has me pondering the truly frightening aspects of contemporary life in America. Never mind witches, skeletons and goblins; here's a list of some stuff that will truly scare anyone with a brain:

1) Global warming (it may be a cliche, but this is THE issue to keep in mind)

2) Looming war with Iran (don't think so? just wait and see)

3) Health care - yours, mine, millions of uninsured Americans vs. big insurance, big pharma, big hospital conglomerates

4) The recession that's right around the corner (our economists are in denial, for the most part)

5) Religion - especially Islamic and Christian fundamentalism, but all theology is a good scare.

Be glad for scary movies and Halloween - they ain't nothin' compared to the real stuff.

This post was inspired by a clip featuring one of my heroes, Bill Maher:

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Pledge Drive Blues: My Love/Hate Relationship with Chicago Public Radio

Warning: The following post may not be suitable for younger or more sensitive readers (or the rant-phobic).

I confess: I listen to public radio and I am NOT a member. There are several things that drew me to WBEZ (oooh, they don't call it that anymore...) back in the early 80's. First of all, they had many hours of jazz programming, which was not available anywhere else in the Chicago radio spectrum. They were also the local distributor for All Things Considered, which has been referred to as the gateway drug for becoming a public radio junkie. It is, all things considered, a consistently wonderful way to get more accurate unbiased news and some off the wall human interest features that I wouldn't otherwise get to hear.

In recent years I have also been drawn, like many of my fellow listeners, to This American Life, Le Show and even, on occasion, to Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me. I also listen to the venerable and eclectic Fresh Air with Terry Gross. I should probably send WHYY a few hundred dollars for that one! For the last two decades I have been a member (on and off, but mostly on) and have gladly indulged my auditory addiction to 91.5 FM.

As I write this, the station is in the midst of their autumn fund drive. I hate fund drives. I know they're necessary, blah blah blah, I hate 'em anyway. A bunch of whiny on-air wannabees shilling for contributions; demeaning for them and an insulting waste of good airtime for me.
Yesterday I heard one of them use the word "awesome" about a dozen times in a five minute period to describe the programming, the crappy gifts they give out to encourage donations and what kind of person I would be if I would only call and pledge at the dollar-a-day level. Bah, humbug!

There's also a lot of yammering during this drive about "accountability" - how the station is listener-supported and therefore responsive to the community that sustains it. My experience with WBEZ is that this is an empty platitude. Here's why:

This past year the station abandoned their long term commitment to jazz. I'm not saying that the programming was great; to me it was lacking in variety (bring back Neil Tesser!) and their format mandated playing a vocal track every 5 or so selections. However, at least I could count on hearing the most under-represented genre of music - and the one I play and love - on the radio every night. Now it's gone - poof! There was a substantial outcry from jilted jazz listeners but our protests fell on deaf ears. I even had a heated email discussion with the station manager Tory Malatia. It was all to no avail. Now, instead of music we get repeats of shows that have aired during the day (including Worldview, which IMHO shouldn't air at all) plus some unlistenable international news programs.

So, "Chicago Public Radio", I will continue to listen to the shows I like and I will not be sending you any more money, at least for the time being. I know there are hundreds if not thousands of disappointed jazz fans who have to try to tune in the faint and amateurish WDCB to get their on-air jazz fix. Accountability isn't a word to be tossed around lightly, Tory.

I can't wait for this stupid fund drive to be over!

Monday, October 15, 2007

Better Health Care for All

MLK Poster

There is something very wrong with the way we do health care in America. I'm sure this comes as no surprise to you. Unless you are quite wealthy, paying for doctor visits, prescriptions and (worst of all) hospitalizations really hurts.

I have a bare bones (no pun intended) Blue Cross Blue Shield hospitalization plan. With a huge $2500 deductible I pay around $200 a month for just myself, hoping against hope that I will never need to use the policy. In addition, I pay every cent of my visits to the doc, for any lab work I have to have done, for all of my dental and eye care and for my medications. Blue Cross does offer a small discount on prescriptions with my health plan so that does help a little.

Having reached the half century mark, my physician strongly advises that I get a colonoscopy, a test that is one of the most efficacious tools in the high tech arsenal to detect the onset of a very common form of cancer. The only thing stopping me is the $2500 price tag, all of which I will have to pay out of pocket. I'm one of the millions of under-insured Americans. I hesitate to call the doctor when I'm sick, fearing the cost. There have been a couple of instances when I had to decide whether or not to call an ambulance (for chest pains, say) and the primary reason I didn't dial 911 was that I thought I would incur huge, unmanageable expenses that would, in the medium term at the very least, do me more harm than NOT going to the ER.

I am starting to feel ill as I write this.

And what about the 45 million Americans who have NO health coverage? They're even more screwed than I am. The truth is that in the U.S. we spend more on health care than any other industrialized nation ($2.6 trillion in 2006, according to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services) YET we rank 37th among all the countries in the world in terms of health system performance (so says the World Health Organization). Here's a fact that never ceases to amaze me:

The United States is the only "advanced" country (whatever that means) in the world that DOES NOT have universal health care.

How can that possibly be? What prevents us from seeing the most obvious solution to what is unquestioningly recognized as the most significant domestic issue facing us as a nation?


Health care is a human right. Everyone should be able to receive high quality, affordable health care services. The only way we can repair our badly broken system is to take health care OUT of the hands of profit driven health care providers and insurance companies. We will not be re-inventing the wheel by any stretch of the imagination if we simply establish a Single Payer National Health policy. A public agency, such as the very efficient one that runs Medicare, could be expanded to create a just, equitable and affordable system for ALL Americans.

There is a bill pending in the House of Representatives right now that creates just such a system. It is called H.R. 676. Very simply, it puts into place a mechanism that would ensure that:

1) Every resident of the U.S. is covered regardless of income, job status, age or health status.

2) Everyone may choose their own doctor without worrying about co-payments, deductibles or premiums.

3) All health care services are fully covered, including hospital stays, doctor visits, prescription medications, long-term care and mental health care.

Sounds idyllic doesn't it? Well, it is far from a utopian dream. There are systems just like this in place in many other of the world's "advanced" nations, including the U.K., France and Canada.


Don't let Fred Thompson and other morons of his ilk win this one. The interests of all of us normal folks must outweigh the interests of the for-profit health care industry - the HMOs, the health insurance companies, and the giant pharmaceutical companies who's marketing budgets far outstrip the amount they spend on research and development. We really do have to take this to the streets if we want to begin to heal one of the sickest aspects of our society.

Contact HealthCare-NOW to get involved.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Get OUT!

I just learned of Richard Dawkins' new effort to make atheists and atheism more visible. It is called the OUT campaign. The big red A that now adorns this blog is a symbol of my support for the concept as well as a personal statement that I identify as a non-theist.

In case you live under a rock, Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist who wrote the seminal best selling book The God Delusion. He and my other hero Sam Harris (author of The End of Faith) are in large part responsible for the increased visibility of non-theism (or rationalist thinking or the "bright" philosophy or whatever you want to call it).

This information came to me through a blog I've been frequenting lately called The Atheist Revolution, which I highly recommend. The author is a very active reader and blogs regularly about all the various political, social and personal aspects of atheism. What I'm beginning to realize is that I am far from alone in my disbelief in supernatural beings. There are substantially more agnostics, skeptics, freethinkers and atheists than I have been led to believe. Just ignorance and my part - combined with the saturation of information in the media about the unfortunate pervasiveness of religious fundamentalism of all stripes.

If you would like the lovely big red A for your site, you can grab it HERE.

Thursday, October 4, 2007


I experienced deep ignominy tonight, as well as a "first" in my musical career.

I'm fortunate enough to be the main bass substitute for a very successful, high profile Broadway show here in Chicago (I prefer to keep the name under wraps for the time being). It's a great gig: lots of fun to play, great money, good people in the pit; all in all very groovy.

Today (Wednesday) there were two shows; these happen to be the last two of a week-long run I've had while the regular bassist is on vacation. I played the first show and left the theater to go for a power walk downtown. Then I planned to move my car to a spot closer to the theater so I could more easily get my basses struck and to my vehicle without hoofing it too far. I picked up some take out food and moved my car to a nice rock star spot. Everything was going according to plan.

There's a lot of time between shows on these two show days. So I had brought my iBook to work because I had some music copying to do. I went to the tea shop that has free WiFi around the corner from the theater, bought some horrifyingly bad tea and sat down to work. All throughout this extended break I kept an eye on the time. I like to get back to the pit at least fifteen minutes before the downbeat. All my instruments were out and ready to go, but I like to do a careful tuning and maybe warm up for a few minutes before the show.

At around 7:30 I was starting to think about wrapping up my work on the laptop and meandering over to the show. It took me another ten minutes to find a good spot to stop. Right around then, say 7:40, I got a call on my cell from the contractor (who also plays the gig). He asked me if I could get to the theater right away, which I thought was a little odd. Normally nobody wigs out if the musicians are not present that early. I'm thinking 8 o'clock show, everything's mellow. Maybe we're having a band meeting or it's someone's birthday (they're big on celebrations down there - any excuse for eating cake).

I'm literally around the corner from the theater. As I step into the alley on my way to the stage door my phone rings again - same dude. I'm thinking, huh, what's going on? He asks me how soon I'm going to arrive and I tell him that I'm in the alley (the subtext for me was: keep your shirt on, pal, I'll be right there). I asked him if everything was OK and he said: "The show has started! It's a 7:30 show..."

I almost fell down. I ran the rest of the way to the stage door, bolted downstairs, and made my way to the pit with a sickening feeling in my gut. I could hear the second part of the overture/ prelude over the loudspeakers. I grabbed a bass and flipped through the score to the correct page - I could barely breathe, let alone find my place! I jumped in, wishing I could be invisible.

In my nearly thirty years in the business I had never before missed the downbeat of a show. This was unthinkable. I was imagining that this is the end of my association with this show, not to mention my career in the theater altogether. I managed to play the act without further mishap. But my heart was pounding and I felt just awful.

It turned out that one of the keyboard players covered for me and that nobody "important" noticed I was AWOL for the first five minutes of the show. The conductor, contractor and other musicians made light of it so it seems like... no harm done, except to my reputation and my pride.

Just call me the late Bill Harrison.

Monday, October 1, 2007

...and Another Thing

The speaker I referred to in my previous post advocated another "technique" that made my blood boil. She advised people to ignore current events such as the war in Iraq. "Turn off CNN, Fox News... just don't pay attention"; this way you won't become "depressed" because horrible, miserable things are happening in the world. What kind of lunatic, selfish, ignoble person would recommend keeping yourself isolated from knowledge of what's occurring in the world around you?

To stay informed is not the same as obsessing about these events. It is possible to become unduly immersed in politics, but I daresay people are way more distracted (opiated?) by sports, religion and the cult of personality that surrounds us.

Knowledge is power. Keeping yourself "free" from the events of the world is an excellent formula for allowing culture and political life to be given over to morons, zealots and the corrupt. Wait - I'm describing what's already happened!

How dare anyone in a position to motivate and influence people advocate this kind of self-involved intellectual isolation. She ought to be ashamed of herself. But, I suppose if inquiry and the ability to analyze reality were part of her skill set she wouldn't be so deluded about the power of god, either.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Teaching or Infomercial?

This morning I sat through yet another alleged spiritual teaching at the church where I play every Sunday. I will withhold the name of the speaker because I don't wish to create any kind of negative vibe with respect to the church, its attendees or my band-mates. Suffice it to say that today's speaker is a bigwig in the New Thought movement.

Let me start by saying that some of the concepts I generally hear espoused in this "prosperity" church are benign enough. The idea that there can be positive transformation in individuals and in society based upon raising consciousness through study, developing compassion, creativity, love, forgiveness and kindness makes good sense to me. I embrace progress, ethical behavior and generally spreading the good vibe in every possible way. But some of the ideas I hear strike me as overly simplistic; some lean heavily on what I call god-dependence; and some of the talk (especially today's "word") is downright insulting.

Today I was told that "I don't know who I am" because I'm an atheist. I'm supposed to be depressed, cynical and poverty stricken because I don't believe in a supreme being who knows all and sees all. Well, sorry; I'm neither sad nor poor nor ungrateful nor unethical. I simply don't have the evidence I would need to believe that there is some "it" out there to whom I must be devoted. I could be wrong, but I feel fine taking my chances by trying my best to behave ethically and to cultivate in myself the qualities that I feel will promote the greater good for myself and others.

Our evangelist proclaimed that every child comes into the world "with god" and it is only our society and educational system that drums godliness out of our progeny. That is exactly the opposite of what I observe and believe. Children come into the world without the need for some imaginary being that requires their obeisance in order for them to lead happy and prosperous lives. The prevalence of religion in our culture, along with depression, anxiety, poverty and misery should be proof enough that "giving it up" to some supreme being is no panacea. In fact, just the opposite may well be true. When people get strong enough in themselves to know that their happiness does NOT depend on anyone or anything outside of themselves they do not need to praise jesus or allah or any other "supreme" being.

The opening line of the advertising for this speaker reads:

No need to work hard, just be spiritually smart!

Let me get this straight: I just attend your seminar, buy your books and/or CDs, follow the 21 day plan and, bingo! all will be well? Talk about magical thinking. My experience as a sentient being tells me that progress in ANY area of my life requires work, hard work. It doesn't have to be unpleasant, though the task of, say, working through one's psychological terrain can certainly put one through some interesting emotional states. For example, becoming a competent musician requires many, many hours of focused work. I can't think of a single endeavor that is worth pursuing that doesn't involve hard work no matter how "spiritually smart" one becomes. I'm not sure what that phrase is even supposed to mean, even after hearing the "teaching" this morning.

The people I've met at this church seem to be pleasant, intelligent, peace-loving, good-humored folk. They really appreciate our music and that feels really good to me. They've been treated to some great musical performances, including today's gospel choir which killed, and they seem to know when it IS really good. The minister often speaks in ways that resonate well with me, though I do have issues with "christ consciousness" as a positive state of mind. In short, I like this gig; it doesn't really pay enough to do it if I didn't enjoy the experience.

But I just don't get how otherwise seemingly intelligent people can listen to some of the stuff we heard today and not see it as pandering and, yes, demeaning. That's a strong word, I realize. There was no hard sell today, like there was from the idiot who spoke the previous week (I can't waste pixels on that dude). But it was clear to me from the start that the underlying goal of the "teaching" was to get as many congregants as possible to attend the afternoon workshop. I'm sure some good might come from the things this person has to say. She certainly has a "motivational" personality and some of that energy might rub off on attendees. There may be some good advice on how to change one's habits in her seminar. I just wish I didn't have to hear how I'm god's favorite child and how devotion to him/her/it will be my salvation. I already possess the internal wherewithal to do the WORK I need to do to keep moving in the right direction.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Book Report: Michael Chabon

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I'm adding Michael Chabon's name to my list of reasons to be proud of my Jewish heritage. I just finished reading his The Yiddish Policeman's Union, a truly wonderful literary novel. The book is one part thriller, one part ironic love story and two parts Yiddish lesson. The book is Jewish, however, in the same way that Joyce's books are Irish - you don't have to be "in" to get it but some of the meaning (and especially the humor) is deeply cultural.

I heard yesterday that my other favorite Jewish novelist, Philip Roth, has published a new book. Between reading that and catching up with some of Chabon's earlier work, I'm going to be one busy man.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Hidden Agenda

There's a song on a lovely new CD by singer/songwriter Alain Quinn called Hidden Agenda. I listened to it today and it got me thinking...(always dangerous, I know). The protagonist of the song protests the "deep dark secrets" that are part of her lover's "little power trip". She claims "I know what you're thinking"; that his "dirty lies...gonna wear me out."

Yeah, we've all been in THIS movie at one time or another. When we are in the throes of love or passion (not the same thing, BTW), our projections onto another person can make it very tricky to observe the reality of what is transpiring in the relationship we create between us. Needless to say, it feels terrible to have been duped by the psychological games another might play on us. But I think the real hidden agenda is the one we hide from ourselves.

It is only in farsighted retrospect that I have come to begin to understand the part my unconscious desires and strategies have played in the relationships that have shaped my adult life. While I was in the middle of "it", whatever it was, I was almost entirely unaware of the powerful, murky tides that were tossing me around. This was most true when I was "sure" that I was 100% in command of my faculties. It has generally been so much easier to see, analyze and (of course) judge the actions of the other person.

The real truth is that we humans have precious little awareness of the deep forces that move us to behave the ways we do. So much so that, as far as I can figure, the main work that we must do to get healthy is to shine the light of consciousness into these figurative mental/emotional corners. To paraphrase Carl Jung, we must endeavor to make the unconscious conscious. This is the only way we can ever hope to free ourselves from the ravages of repeating the same mistakes over and over again.

This task is not solely an intellectual pursuit. The unconscious mind is a complex labyrinth; it is layered, subtle, violent, spiritual, unreasonable... These parts of ourselves are impossible to grab onto once and for all. Things keep changing; the soul's longings change over time and with experience. And it is entirely too easy to get suckered into believing that "this time will be different". Pete Townsend got it wrong: we WILL get fooled again - if we choose to stay in the dark.

The first task is to acknowledge that this IS our primary task - to seek to know ourselves. Damn Dr. Phil and his ilk. Changing behavior is NOT a matter of willpower or being "sensible" or accepting Jesus or whatever the panacea du jour might be. The work is INNER work; it is difficult and scary and slow. But it must be done.

When I become aware that my unconscious is filled with hidden agendas - all operating simultaneously and on various levels - I can begin to stop blaming others for how they are harming me. I can start to see how I set up situations that cause certain things to happen (again and again); I am able to observe how I collude with others in creating unhealthy outcomes. From this awareness flows compassion, kindness, forgiveness and the kind of peace that comes from letting go of the need to judge others.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Apple Holiday

So it's Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. There's some kind of irony in this holiday coming so close on the heels of the 9/11 anniversary, but I can't quite put my finger on it. Something about the U.S.'s unwavering support of Israel and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, mixed up with being a secular humanist stuck in my Jewish body...

Despite having given up on religion, many of us secularized Jews still do our habitual rituals around the holidays. My sister says it's a "tribal" thing and I think there is something to that explanation. But I do find some of the knee-jerk stuff around the holidays rather irksome. Sitting through a seder just makes my skin crawl nowadays, for instance. I also have a strong aversion for hypocrisy, which seems to underlie my Jewish holiday despondence.

It's not all gloom and doom, though. My kids, who are half-Jewish (or semi-Semites, as I like to say), have nicknamed the holidays according to the foods served. So Passover is the matzoh and charoseth holiday, the latter substance being a melange of apples, nuts and wine pulverized in a blender and used to symbolize the mortar used by our enslaved forbears to build the Egyptian cities. There's never been any outward discussion of matzoh balls' symbolic meaning as bricks, but I do think that would work, considering how they sometimes feel in one's stomach. Chanukah is the latkes holiday, of course. And R.H. is the apple and honey holiday.

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I have a Jewish friend who has a big problem with non-observant "cultural-only" Jews. She calls them "lox and bagels Jews". I suppose I understand her point of view, but there are so many different ways to be Jewish, it seems. The Orthodox don't even recognize those outside their sects as Jews; they are as insular as the most ardent fundamentalists of any faith (though I have yet to hear of a Hasidic suicide bomber). For me, a little tolerance mixed in with one's beliefs (whatever they happen to be) adds considerable credibility to the individuals who practice it.

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And if pride in sharing a heritage with the likes of Albert Einstein, Itzhak Perlman, Philip Roth and Sandy Koufax makes me culturally Jewish, then OK, pass the bagels, please.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Megon McDonough video

I am proud to be a part of a series of recent projects with the incredible Megon McDonough, which includes a CD, a DVD and a live show called Her Way. The full DVD of the show, which we recorded six weeks ago, is not available yet, but you can see clips of the show here. There are even some shots of the bass player (that would be me).

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Number of Uninsured Swells 2.2 Million to 47 Million

Here's the latest bad news about health care in America from Physicians for a National Health Program:

15,000 Doctors: "Single Payer National Health Insurance is the Only Solution"

Download state by state figures HERE

Census Bureau Data HERE

The U.S. Census Bureau released data today showing that the number of uninsured Americans jumped by 2.2 million in 2006 to 47.0 million people, with nearly all the increase (2.03 million) concentrated among middle-class Americans earning over $50,000 per year, according to an analysis by Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP). Strikingly, 1.4 million of the newly uninsured were in families making over $75,000 per year. An additional 600,000 were in families earning $50,000 to $75,000 per year. (The median household income in 2006 was $48,200).

"Middle income Americans are now experiencing the human suffering that comes with being uninsured. It makes any illness a potential economic and social catastrophe," said Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, co-founder of Physicians for a National Health Program and Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School.

Physicians for a National Health Program also noted the following:

The 2.18 million rise in the number of uninsured is the biggest jump reported by the Census Bureau since 1992.

There are now more uninsured in the U.S. (47.0 million) than at any time since passage of Medicare/Medicaid in the mid-1960's.

93% of the increase is among middle and high income families:

Of the 2.18 million increase:

1.398 million (64% of the increase) was in >$75k family income

An additional 633,000 (29% of the increase) was among $50-$75k group

Among full time workers, the number of uninsured increased by 1.230 million (56.4% of the increase).

In Massachusetts, often cited as a model for health reform, the number of uninsured increased from 583,000 in 2005 (9.2 percent) to 657,000 in 2006 (10.4 percent of the population).

The divergence between poverty and uninsurance is relatively new and striking. Until recently, as poverty went down uninsurance fell. That has changed.

The number of uninsured children has fallen only 17 percent since SCHIP was enacted in 1997 from 10.74 million (adjusted to be comparable to current figures) to 8.66 million. The number of uninsured children rose by 611,000 between 2005 and 2006.

The doctors' group said that the only solution to the rising number of uninsured and underinsured is a single-payer national health insurance program, publicly financed but delivered by private doctors and hospitals. Such a program could save more than $400 billion annually in administrative waste, enough to provide high-quality coverage to all and halt the erosion of the current private system.

"We can no longer afford the waste and inefficiency, the high overhead and outrageous executive salaries of the private insurance industry" said Dr. Don McCanne, senior health policy fellow for PNHP. "Only reforms that end our reliance on defective private coverage and assure guaranteed coverage for all will work."

"The experience of other industrialized nations teaches us that high-quality, comprehensive care can be provided to all our citizens," said Dr. Quentin Young, National Coordinator of Physicians for a National Health Program. "A single-payer national health insurance system has emerged as the only solution to the nation's health system debacle."

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Petty Frustration in the Music Biz

There was no just cause for me to be short-tempered with the parking ticket attendant on my way out of Navy Pier this evening. But I gave him a hard time in classic "kick the dog" mode. I was venting my pent up anger from the four hour gig I had just suffered through plus the four hour gig the previous night.


1) a feeling of dissatisfaction, often accompanied by anxiety or depression, resulting from unfulfilled needs or unresolved problems.

2) The condition that results when an impulse or an action is thwarted by an external or an internal force.

I was ready to tear what's left of my hair out because a certain musician who had turned up on both of these gigs drives me insane with his playing. It is difficult to describe to civilians, but you musicians will know what I mean when I tell you what this man does to frustrate me: he plays way too loud, doesn't listen and, worst of all, rushes like a mo'fo' constantly.

There is nothing I can do to make the music feel good because this guy is always phrasing way out in front of the beat. There were excellent drummers on both these gigs but there's only so much commiseration we can share via stolen looks and musical telepathy. We basically have to tune this guy out. Oh, by the way, he's a rhythm section player (I don't want to get too specific here).

As a consequence, I have to try to NOT listen to this musician, which is antithetical to the nature of playing music, especially in a small group. Adding to the maddening level of non-musicality is the unfortunate fact that I happen to like this man very much personally. If I didn't like him so much it would somehow be easier to loathe trying to create a groove on the same bandstand with him.

The final straw for me is the feeling of pettiness that goes along with the frustration. What right do I have to complain or to feel anything other than grateful to be doing this work? I'm not digging ditches or, worse, slogging away in some anonymous cubicle. I'm playing music, fer crissake! And being very well paid for my time and effort. And yet...with the knowledge of how good it can feel to be in that groovy zone with players who are all on the same wavelength, it IS difficult and weird and unfulfilling to be in this situation. I DO feel like my intentions are being thwarted; that I'm being prevented from functioning at the highest level I'm capable of.

I would have liked to explain the whole thing to that nebbish parking dude, but I just didn't have it in me. I did manage a lame apology. With any luck my blood pressure will return to normal before tomorrow morning.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Stormy Memories

Thunk! What the hell was that??

It sounded like the roof had just blown off the sun porch where I've been tapping away at my iMac for the past couple of hours. Heart thumping, I leaped over to the side window, which seemed closest to the the origin of the rude noise. There was a piece of two-by-four (which I recognized as part of the rear dormer of my attic) on the ground between my house and the neighbor's, and a chunk of one of my downspouts leaning against the other house.

In that moment I looked up and to the right and saw that it had begun to storm like crazy. I don't know how long it had been raining and blowing like this but I just noticed it for the first time. I've never seen sheets of heavy rain blow sideways as it was now doing. Thunder, lightning, treacherous sounding wind... it was really coming down!

Which is all rather odd, because earlier this morning I was recounting the story of the only hurricane I've ever witnessed to a friend in an email. It has been very rainy here in Chicago the last several days. Hot, muggy and rainy - yech. You know what they say: it's not the heat, it's the stupidity. Anyway, all this rain had got me thinking about the hurricane from my youth:

We were on a family vacation in Miami in August, 1964. We were staying in a beach front hotel right on the ocean. That night we heard that a hurricane (I just looked it up - it was Hurricane Cleo), was going to blow through.

I remember my father putting mattresses up against the window. I don't recall where we slept but I do remember the sounds, the darkness and the aftermath the following morning. The storm was surprisingly LOUD; I had been in thunderstorms before - who hasn't, unless you live in the desert. But this hurricane made wind and rain that was truly scary; I wasn't sure that our little room wasn't going to be whisked away, Wizard of Oz style.

The following morning was quite spooky. The sky was a unique shade of dark gray and the air smelled funny, as if things had been stirred up from the bottom of some cosmic pot. The beach was overrun with downed coconuts, a few of which my sister and I collected. I remember having a tough time opening those things, as we didn't know how to do it and I doubt we had the proper tools (whatever they may be - I still have no idea how to crack open a coconut).

The lobby of the hotel we were staying at was in a separate building and the roof had been partially blown off. I think I remember that a large chandelier had been downed by the wind but I may have made that up, memory being such a creative thing. But I do recall seeing a few empty soda bottles up in the rafters of the lobby roof. They must have been left there by the construction crew.

As long as I'm safely indoors I find the sound of a thunderstorm comforting. Even if it gets a little violent I feel a sense of security in the whirling wind and the rain pelting the roof . My bedroom is in the attic of my house so I really get to experience all the elements in close proximity. An occasional outburst of thunder will bring a quickening of the pulse but, for the most part, I love the rhythms tapped out on my roof when it pours.

Right now there's an overcast lull, but I'm hoping the storm will roar again later tonight.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

First Take on the Blog as Art

I admit that I've come late to this blogging party. But now that I've had a little bit of a chance to hang out in Ye Olde Blogosphere as a reader I have this obvious insight into the obvious: There's a lot of crap out there that is NOT worth reading. Brilliant deduction, eh? I don't know what I was expecting... maybe only people who really have something to say write weblogs; maybe the chaff falls away at some point; perhaps dullards get tired of trying to think of something interesting to tap out on their keyboards eventually.... Or maybe I intuited all along that I would be as disappointed as I feel and was just delaying the inevitable. It really is just like non-virtual life: one has to wade through a whole lot of junk to find anything remotely valuable or insightful.

This seems particularly true in the tiny jazz music niche of the blogging world. I have found precious little writing on this subject that holds my interest for more than a few seconds. I haven't given up yet; I know there are jazz oriented blogs extant that I've not discovered or perused. But damn little of what I HAVE come across is worth its weight in pixels.

I have read some interesting political blogs. There's some great stuff on non-theism and various social causes that interest me. I realize that jazz is a marginalized art form in our culture, unfortunately, but I was really hoping to find some artistic comradeship in that area.

I will do some more digging and report back here if and when I find something of note.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Health Care for All of Us

I know that I am not smart enough to pen a cogent argument for a national single-payer health care system. But after having seen Michael Moore's most recent (and least politically polarizing) film Sicko I am galvanized to support the concept even more than I have in the past.

Right now there is a bill pending in the House (H.R. 676) that would create approximately the same kind of national health care system found in Canada, France and the U.K. As one Newsweek commentator puts it, you can think of it like "Medicare for all". This bill, by the way, is co-sponsored by Dennis Kucinich, the only Democratic presidential candidate who explicitly supports a single payer system. As a Chicagoan I know it's never a good idea to "back no losers" so I sent the Obama campaign a letter questioning the candidate's stance on health care. I got this pretty good response back:

Promoting affordable and accessible health care is a priority of mine in the U.S. Senate. Health care should be a right for everyone, not a privilege for a few. The U.S. is one of the wealthiest nations in the world, yet more than 45 million Americans are uninsured. This is unacceptable. Addressing this problem should be a top priority for our Federal government. I am constantly disappointed by the lack of positive discussion and action on health care issues in Washington. Too many Americans are working hard but cannot afford their health care bills. Too many employers are finding it difficult to offer the coverage their employees need. Day to day, this is an enormous problem, let alone when a personal crisis hits.

I am certainly supportive of the goal of universal health care in the U.S. As you may know, I have called for universal health care by 2012. This call for coverage does not translate into a call for a single-payer system. Although I personally see great merit in a single-payer health care system, given the current political climate I believe that building upon and strengthening our employer-based system will provide a better chance of creating consensus and achieving the goal of universal health care. Regardless, I view federal subsidies to expand coverage for uninsured individuals, controlling the costs of premiums and copays for those with coverage, increased focus on preventive health programs and quality improvement, and health IT implementation as a few of the key tenets of any successful health care reform plan.

It'd be nice if Obama had a more principled and less "practical" stance on this issue, but there's no arguing with the relative popularity of Barack vs. Dennis. So, there you have it.

It seems to me that this change is going to come from Congress, cajoled by the huddled, under-insured masses. Please urge your representatives to support and co-sponsor H.R. 676 if they are not doing so already.

For more info on an American single payer health care system, please visit:

Physicians for a National Health Care System



Tuesday, July 31, 2007

I Have Been Tagged

My so-called friend Helena Bouchez has tagged me. I will try to be a good sport and play by the rules, which are:

The Rules

1. We have to post these rules before we give you the facts.
2. Players start with eight random facts/habits about themselves.
3. People who are tagged write their own blog about their eight things and post these rules.
4. At the end of your blog, you need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their names. Don’t forget to leave them a comment telling them they’re tagged, and to read your blog.

Bill's Eight Things:

1. I tend to overthink this list.

2. When I was a kid, I played the accordion (and liked it).

3. I am street dyslexic. I cannot mentally distinguish between certain streets here in Chicago. I always confuse Touhy and Devon, for example. I have trouble with Wellington and Diversey too.

4. I have no tolerance for grandiose or pretentious people. King George, Dr. Phil, Rush Limbaugh and James Dobson come to mind.

5. No matter how much I try, I just cannot bring myself to like: music with banjos or bagpipes, fireworks, television, marshmallows or smooth jazz (I think the last two items may be synonymous).

6. I am a New Warrior. My animal name is Fierce Wolf.

7. In a parallel universe I am 6'2", 210 #, play second base for the Mets, drive a Miata, and can afford to own all the CDs, DVDs and books I want. Oh, yeah, and the hippest women find me irresistible.

8. The funniest, most interesting people I know are my own children.

Next tagging victims:

Baby Z
Jason Heath
Fred Simon
Susan Joy
Linda Clifford

I know I'm supposed to tag eight people, but I can't think of any others who are online. So sue me.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Open Letter from Art Lauer

A final piece of writing from my friend, composer Art Lauer, who died June 7th.

Having undergone a series of misfortunes beginning on July 4th, 2006, and which continue to this day, I must admit that ever-present friend Irony is comically complete. I smile with the corners of my mouth down.

Unusually fortunate, I have never been ill in seventy-three previous years. This causes deep consideration of what has and is yet occurring. The months have made me acutely aware of not only our capacity for empathy and sensitivity to others. It also brought to light that in more ordinary conditions we conceal that capacity - from even ourselves. I have many, many friends. They have been that for many years already, yet neither I nor they have been entirely aware of the depth it entailed. They have responded to all with an exhibition of their feelings of love and respect beyond measure. Add to those many from over the years, the many who responded in my immediate local venue and the result is overcoming, and yet it continues. As many have heard me say that, in a way, the disease has been worth having.

And so I dwell on beginnings, not endings. Whatever lives in my own heart, my entire scope of possibility is theirs as much as mine. If only we were always able to express our innermost feelings as they have been at this time, how altered - and decidedly better a world this might be. If there is such a thing as sin, it may be our reticence to allow others into our deepest being. For me, it is a supreme joy to know and be known. There are no thank yous for what I received each day and night.

- Art Lauer (July 31, 1932 - June 7, 2007)

Friday, July 27, 2007

Another Fun Gig

This is rare - two noteworthy (ouch) gigs in one month!

The night before last I played a last minute, thrown together gig at a beach-side park on the south side of Chicago. Our little band was subbing for a group whose leader had just suffered a heart attack, which is a helluva way to score a gig. This was a peculiar kind of job called a "trust fund" engagement.

If I understand it correctly (and that's a large if), several decades ago the musicians union established the Music Performance Trust Fund. This fund was a response by the American Federation of Musicians (our national organization) to the huge loss of jobs suffered in our industry by the advent of the phonograph record. Used to be that every radio show, TV show, theatre and corner tavern had live musicians of some sort. When recorded music became the norm lots of working class musicians had to scramble to either find other kinds of music gigs or get a new line of work. The MPTF is partially (or completely, I'm not certain) funded by the recording industry. The fund co-sponsors events for civic groups, non-profits, schools and other non-commercial outlets. The events are always, to my knowledge, admission free.

In this case the job was co-sponsored by the Chicago Park District. We were playing in a beach house pavilion at a pretty spiffy park right on the lakefront at 63rd Street, just off the famous Lake Shore Drive. The only bad news is that these gigs pay very little - way below our normal scale. But we do them to be good citizens and also, hopefully, for fun.

And this one was really fun. One of the best things about the freelance music biz is that I get to hang with people I've known for years. It's not like an office job because the cast of characters keeps changing. Sometimes I won't see a musician for a year or two or five but when we get together to play it is often magic - it's as if we never stopped playing together. So the other evening I got to see three folks I rarely get to play music with. Everyone was in a groovy mood, the handful of listeners we had seemed to be enjoying themselves and I must say that we sounded pretty darn good. I was playing my Lakland fretless bass, which I've been using more and more, and it was the right bass to bring for this outdoor gig.

If this keeps up, I'm going to start expecting gigs to be a good time. This, of course, goes against one of my core principles of survival: If you keep your expectations low then there's a decent chance you might be pleasantly surprised on occasion. Hey, it could happen...

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Brief Rant: "Awesome!"



1.inspiring awe: an awesome sight.
2.showing or characterized by awe.
3. expressing awe: stood in awesome silence before the ancient ruins.

From the root noun awe:

an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, fear, etc., produced by that which is grand, sublime, extremely powerful, or the like: in awe of God; in awe of great political figures.

A mixed emotion of reverence, respect, dread, and wonder inspired by authority, genius, great beauty, sublimity, or might: We felt awe when contemplating the works of Bach. The observers were in awe of the destructive power of the new weapon.

My favorite use of the word was by oceanographer/filmmaker Jacques Cousteau who used to describe the undersea world by saying, in his thick French accent, "Eet is awww-some."

I hate to sound like an old curmudgeon, but the slang use of "awesome" drives me crazy. This word is too powerful to waste on the mundane, as this culture is now wont to do. Can we think of another way to express our delight or approval of an everyday event?

Back in the day we used the word "cool" for mild approbations. It worked nicely, I thought. "Cool" connotes casual acceptability combined with a certain hipness. "Dope" came and went pretty fast but I thought that had enough comic iconoclastic panache for this purpose. "Awesome" has stuck around WAY too long, and to me, it never felt or sounded right.

"Awesome" should be reserved for those rare, unforgettable, mind-blowing experiences like standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon, setting foot on the moon and falling in love. Think sublime, reverent, earth-shaking.

So I hereby challenge the awesome-dependent among us to come up with a more suitable expression for things that are good, nice, pleasant. alright, generally OK. Let me know what you come up with. That'd be really awesome.

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Human Shadow

It has become clear to me that, because I have been emphasizing the idyllic dimension of people while underplaying the "shadow," some have been lulled into a highfalutin image of themselves and of myself which matches neither the reality of their being nor of mine, and brooks contradictions in how they handle situations. Anyone volunteering to embody the archetype representing people's higher self will have to choose between artfully concealing one's shadow and, when discovered, justifying it hypocritically, or alternatively, exposing oneself to scrutiny and criticism by all. Should one have the honesty and courage to confront one's shortcomings, one will better understand people's problems through seeing oneself in others and others in oneself, thus affording real help to those who also need to transmute their shadow elements.

-Sufi master Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Wildlife Tour

We were on time for the Bison-tenial.

Had a day off from driving today because we made like tourists and signed on to a guided tour primarily focused on the Upper Loop of the park. We were in a 20 seater van with huge windows being driven around for about 8 hours. So I'm a bit visually over-stimulated.

The idea of this tour was to go where the animals hang out and view them. We did see bison (not buffalo, technically), mule deer, elk, coyotes, bald eaglets, osprey but no bears. And, sadly but not unexpectedly, no wolves. I'll have to come back in the winter to see canis lupus at their best. We also saw some incredible views, learned about the great fire of 1988 and its aftermath, and got to compare the flora of a couple of different areas of Yellowstone.

This is a shot of Orange Mound (I think that's the name), which is a non-thermal formation in the northern half of the park. The colors are made by lichen which actually stain the white rock these remarkable colors.

I didn't realize how big a role the Grand Canyon and the 250 plus waterfalls play in Yellowstone. I guess, like most Americans, I thought this park is all about geysers; I was wrong. There is SO much to see and experience here that I'm rather overwhelmed (but you couldn't tell that...nah).

Here's a magnificent vista we were luck enough to view late in the afternoon today:

GPS and Hail

There's a great aerial photo of the Grand Prismatic Spring in the book Earth From Above. So Addie wanted us to have a look - and it was well worth stopping. Descriptions and pictures (even professional ones) don't do the colors justice. Don't even mention the smell!

We spent a more leisurely day investigating geothermal formations in the park yesterday. A lot of these geyser-ish sights are way more impressive than Old Faithful in terms of colors, smell, level of activity and other-worldliness.
If I ever figure out how to post video I'll put up some moving pictures of these things.

We also drove Grand Canyon loop through what felt like rush hour traffic. We managed a one mile hike with the payoff of this great view of the Lower Falls. The relatively steep climb nearly landed one or two of us (ahem) in the local ER but we lived to blog the tale, luckily.

More Yellowstone weather: On our way out of the park in the evening we got clobbered by a hailstorm that came out of absolutely nowhere. It began with two big thunks on the windshield and went from zero to sixty almost instantly. The temperature plummeted from the mid 80's to 52 in a matter of minutes. And then, just as suddenly, it was over. We drove out into West Yellowstone in lovely sunshine.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Around Every Turn A New Wonder

It is almost too much magnificence to take in, this Yellowstone National Park. The things I read and heard about its size, weather, and beauty are all true. It lives up to the hype, like so few things in life. As Hannah pointed out, in the first hour we were in the park we experienced: a grizzly bear calmly munching, uh, something by the side of the road, a fire in the back of some poor shlub's van, bright sun, overcast skies, a sun shower, heavy rainfall, temperatures ranging from 62-87 F, mountains, huge Lake Yellowstone, ravines, open meadows, forest. The place is indescribably complex and wonderful.

We spent a few too many hours in the car, which made the Old Faithful experience late in the afternoon not quite as thrilling as it might have been. This was partly due to my driving malfunction early in the day; somehow we left Worland this morning going in the wrong direction. The mistake cost us an hour or so of driving time, but we did get to drive through a canyon that knocked us all out which we would have otherwise missed. Since Yellowstone is so huge, there is a lot of driving just getting from an entrance to anywhere. We entered the park on the east side, through Cody, Wyoming. We drove around the eastern half of the lake then turned west to Geyser Country. Between the sheer distance, the wacky weather and the folks who like to stop dead in the middle of the road to observe wildlife it took a good long time to get to Old Faithful. Of course we got there just minutes after an eruption so we had to cool it for 90 minutes waiting for the next one. The dude is punctual, though. Quite a performer.

Then we drove to the town of West Yellowstone, Montana, checked into the lovely and very reasonable City Center Motel, ordered in some mediocre pizza (yes, being from Chicago we are pizza snobs) and generally fell out. We have requests to return to Geyserland tomorrow to see the Grand Prismatic Spring, the "paint pots" and the baby geysers surrounding Big Daddy O.F.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Mt. Rushbore

Yep, it was just like I remembered it from 1973 - a bunch of heads carved out of a mountaintop way up there. Can you say tourist trap? We luckily drove only an hour or so out of our way to spend ten minutes at the national monument which really IS much ado about nothing. Sure, incredible technology for its time and all that. But the question must be asked: why? So now the kids can say they've been to Mt. Rushmore (and they can take their kids there to be underwhelmed sometime in the distant future).

The exciting thing is that we're now only about 2 hours from the Eastern entrance of Yellowstone. Here's a lovely picture of the sky last night in Wall, SD:

This afternoon we wended our way through the Big Horn Mountains on our way to the western part of the state. For folks who live in Flatland USA driving through this contoured landscape was breathtaking. We're becoming visual gluttons!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Bad and the Beautiful

Wall, SD: We spent the better part of the day driving, but the effort paid off. The Badlands of South Dakota are eerie, otherworldly and magnificent. I snapped so many pictures that it was difficult to pick just one to post. I was last here around 1973 and we didn't do much more than drive through the "loop", which is the main road to and from I 90 that traverses the national park. Today we got out several times, clambered around, saw a film about the geology and history of the area and got a more complete feel for the landscape.

Here's Sam, Addie and Hannah in the heart of the Badlands. Tomorrow, on to Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone!

Monday, July 9, 2007

On the Road Again

Jackson, MN - Your intrepid reporter checks in this evening from a lovely Super 8 Motel (free wireless internet from every room!) just off I-90 in southwestern Minnesota. I'm on the first leg of a driving vacation from Chicago to Yellowstone with my three teens. I'll add pictures to these posts when I'm not quite as fried as I am at the moment.

We made 480 miles today, after having left at the crack of midday (11AM). We've already proved the old saw that "half the fun is getting there" by having lunch at Culver's, listening to Sam croon Civil War songs in the car, and laughing til it hurts over the extremely crunchy garlic bread at dinner (don't ask - you had to be there). Now we're tucked in for the night with great expectations of arriving at the Badlands of South Dakota on the morrow.


Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Why I Hate the 4th of July

The idea of Independence Day as a commemoration of the noble words set down in the Declaration of Independence has my full support. My disgust with the holiday is fueled by the ways we Americans have chosen to celebrate the creation of that document and the distortions of the basic values set forth therein that we have allowed. The 4th of July is like christmas without Santa; it's vacuous and irritating to those of us who actually look for meaning behind the symbolism, words and activities associated with the holiday.

Just to indicate how much this annoys me, I'll begin with the word "holiday", which is derived from "holy day". What on earth is "holy" about this anniversary (or christmas, for that matter)? The 4th of July serves as a reminder to me of all the things that are WRONG with the good ol' US of A. Call me the anti-christ if you like (I'll accept it as a term of endearment) but today I'm focused on the ills of patriotism, nationalism, oppression, imperialism, jingoism, demagoguery, theocracy and commercialism. How's that for curmudgeonly?

To be clear: I love my country, but I often dislike the actions taken by our government and the prevailing political, social, economic and (particularly) religious beliefs we espouse as a nation. The Declaration of Independence is, for the most part, an honorable and worthy expression created, it seems to me, out of intense frustration and desperation by a committee of remarkable men. In case you need a reminder, here's how the D of C begins (emphasis mine):

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

This is not the time or space for a long political rant (hey, I gotta go buy a Chevy and get home in time to start the grill...) but suffice it to say, that, in my opinion, we are currently living under the rule of a despot who we have somehow permitted to abuse and usurp our rights and to lead us into an unjust and wholly unnecessary war. Getting well rid of the present King George can't happen soon enough for me. But I'm rambling slightly off topic here...

Here, then, are my specific gripes about this over-hyped day:

Fireworks and firecrackers: Folks, what could possibly be more symbolic of our love affair with military might than these idiotic displays? Even my peacenik family and friends are somehow able to overlook this glorification of "might makes right" that is one of the unfortunate hallmarks of this nation. ("And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air...") That's a helluva way to celebrate life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Yeah, let's go watch a rousing display of faux bombs and rockets while our soldiers continue to kill and be killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nice irony. Congratulations, fellow Americans.

Flag Waving and Jingoism: Look, the stars and stripes do make for a lovely little tapestry that well symbolizes the "united" nature of our states. But beyond that, how and why have we imbued this hunk of cloth with all of this quasi-religious power? This undeserved fervor is not the exclusive fault of the die-hard, redneck, stereotypical flag-wavers. The youth movement in the 1960's and 70's added an egregious measure to the power of the S and S by staging flag burnings. To me, all the flag worship is a painful reminder of the jingoistic nature of unbridled patriotism that is way too common in our beloved country. The enforcement of the "America: Love It or Leave It" point of view really makes me ill.

Commercialism, consumerism, waste: Again, think christmas or, better yet, the day after Thanksgiving. 'Nuff said?

One nation, under god: Finally, the all too pervasive thrall that christianity illegitimately holds over this country is never more fully expressed than on July 4th. The United States is NOT a christian nation, no matter how many times that idea is espoused. We are NOT a theocracy, although the present administration and the so-called "religious right" would have us believe and behave otherwise. Nothing infuriates me more than this allegation. There is no "one nation, under god". Our Constitution explicitly and unequivocally excludes all religious beliefs.

I have thusfar left out my usual complaints about the noise and danger of fireworks. In my neighborhood the 4th is an excuse for setting off cherry bombs and M80s at all hours of the day and night, starting around June 15 and ending early in August (if we're lucky). My kids are probably risking their fingers and hands as I write this. There is something admittedly primal and exhilarating about explosions, but it seems to me that this infantile fascination is something to grow out of at some point, like peeing in one's pants and eating with one's fingers. Oh, and like believing in some supernatural being who is watching over us.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Three for Three (a brag)

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So I committed to going to the Y 3 times this past week and succeeded in accomplishing that goal. This morning it actually started to feel good to work out. Got the runner's high goin' on the treadmill and the muscles are remembering how to work the resistance machines. First time back I was sore as hell - and a bit discouraged. Today I feel...strengthened. What a concept.

Quick story that somehow relates to this: I was shopping with my smart as a whip daughter Hannah a few days ago. We were examining the tacos (have to buy the exactly correct ones, you know) and one of the packages read "Flex before opening". So I immediately did my best Hulk Hogan "grrrrrr" full body flex, much to the amusement of Hannah (and probably a couple of startled fellow shoppers). Still don't know exactly what the taco bakers had in mind...

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Jazz Underneath - my new blog

Thanks to all who have supported my efforts as a writer here. It is due to that inspiration that I've been prodded to start writing about the music I love and play here.

My intent is to write about the music from an insider's point of view but in a non-technical way so that civilians can "get" what it is we're trying to do and hopefully gain a more thorough appreciation for jazz as an art form.

I hope to strike a balance between music geek and the "gee whiz" type of criticism that often rankles those of us in the biz. When I read, for example, Howard Reich in the Chicago Tribune, my blood pressure usually ticks up a few notches because the man knows virtually NOTHING about creating this kind of music. (I believe he was a "legit" clarinet major in college; I could have that wrong but there's no way he could play his way out of a paper bag on a blues in Bb).

But I digress. I've often been accused of being a jazz snob. The fact is that I love a lot of different kinds of music, so long as they don't involve bagpipes or banjos. I can even deal with the accordion, probably the most maligned of all instruments. Because jazz has such an unjustifiably small audience I do feel protective of it. I want more people to be able to enjoy more great music; if that's snobbery, please explain.

So please check out Jazz Underneath in the coming weeks. There's not much there yet but there will be. Suggestions for topics to cover will be gratefully considered.